Workers, environment bear brunt in Sinai cement trade

It is 3 pm, the time the workers of the Sinai Cement Company set off for home. Some are suffering from a hacking cough, apparently they are used to it.

Central Sinai, where the company is based, is fertile land that requires a mixture of skilled labor and water wells. There are no signs of life here apart from this factory where work is extremely tough. There are hardly any work opportunities for the 408,000-plus residents of North and Central Sinai.

This cement factory offers the only jobs around. A French company is the largest shareholder in this factorlocated 35 kilometers from Arish.

There are seemingly no health or environmental precautions taken in the factory. The factory dumps its waste into the soil, shattering the hopes of millions of Egyptians who hope Sinai will one day be their bread basket.

Bypass, or solid cement waste, is processed into dust which the workers sprinkle with water. The workers breathe in the bypass dust which contains chemicals that have the potential to destroy their nervous and respiratory systems, according to Dr. Mohamed al-Hamshary, a researcher at the National Research Centre. Meanwhile, the workers only wear helmets for protection.

Gehad Mohamed, 24, a resident of Sheikh Zuwayed and a worker at the factory, says "there is no work in Sinai except in agriculture or at this factory. Of course farming needs money and so working at the factory is better."

"There is no other option. My salary was LE700 before the revolution and it is now LE1,100. Whenever we ask for raises, they say the factory is losing [profits]."

“I often feel that I am on the verge of death because we sometimes get into places that are not properly ventilated…I fell to the ground twice and almost suffocated but thank God, I came out alive,” he adds.

The Vicat Group is a French company that performs part of its activities in Egypt under the name Vicat Egypt. It is the biggest shareholder in the Sinai Cement Company with 39.64 percent of the stocks.

The company has a long history that dates back to the 19th century. It also works in the field of electronics. In France, its activities were criticised for environmental reasons before the it relocated the majority of its investments to Third World countries.

Bypass is considered poisonous. The amount of dust in a medium-sized factory is estimated at 300 tonnes a day per production line, or 1,000 tonnes a day in a factory with three medium-sized production lines. The Environment Ministry's website says one factory in south Helwan produces around 400 tonnes of dust a day, which means that three such factories produce more than 1,200 tonnes of dust a day. The ministry says this dust is one of the main pollutants when winds blow from the south.

Article 22 of the 1994 Law Four states that owners of factories should keep records of the impact of their activities on the environment. The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency follows up on those records to ensure they conform to standards, taking samples and conducting tests to work out the impact of a factory on the environment.

When violations are discovered, the agency notifies the administrative body concerned to take necessary action. If the plant owner does not address them within 60 days the agency and the concerned administrative body may take legal and judicial action to stop the activity and demand compensation to address the harmful impacts of the violations.

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